Brent knew the whoops coming from the living room would end in a bang on his door, shattering his concentration for the day. He and Tammy had spent the morning shopping while Joey was at soccer practice, and now he was eager to catch up on some work. This had become their Saturday afternoon ritual: him holed up in his office until dinner while his wife and son watched movies or played board games.
It was a Godsend of found time that would end as soon as Spring took root for good and coaxed them outdoors the whole weekend.
That’s why his irritation grew with each pounding footstep that Tammy or Joey — he couldn’t tell which yet — took toward his sanctuary. They were both shrieking loud enough to drown out the whooshing wind that bent the trees outside Brent’s window. Someone better be dead, Brent thought.
The doorknob rattled, and Joey walked in without waiting to be invited.
“Dad!” He was breathless. “A tree fell outside!”
Joey’s eyes were wide, and Brent could see the boy was scared. But, dammit, he was trying to work.
“Did it hit anything?” Brent asked, holding both palms up in a what-the-freak posture.
“Well … no,” Joey said.
“Then chill out.”
Brent stood and ushered his son out of the office, following him across the hallway and into the living room where Tammy stood gawking through the front window.
“Holy crap!” she said. “That could have hit the house!”
“But did it?” Brent asked.
“No, but I thought it did,” Tammy said. “It made such a strange noise!”
“Yeah,” Joey said. “Swoosh! Swoosh! Eeeaarrrreeeee! Kablam!” he mocked, while playing out the swaying and falling of the tree with his arms.
Brent pursed his lips. “Well, seems like everything is OK. We’ll have to look into cleaning it up later.”
He edged toward his office, but Tammy wasn’t ready to let him go. “Come see this,” she commanded. “It’s a real mess.”
“I’ll check it out after dinner,” Brent replied. “I need to get back to work. Besides, it’s still blowing so hard that there’s nothing we can do right now. If we go out there in this wind, we’re likely to get hit with something. It can wait.”
Joey grabbed his hand, and the boy’s palm was moist with nervous sweat. He tugged Brent toward the window and said, “Look, Dad, it’s still kind of propped up on one side. You don’t think it could shift and hit the house, do you?”
Brent wasn’t going to get back to work without at least looking out the window, and he rolled his eyes at Tammy as Joey led him across the room.
“See, Dad,” Joey said, nudging his mother aside and pointing into the front yard. “We were sitting there on the couch playing checkers, and the trees were whispering — you know how they do?”
Brent gave a curt nod. “Yep.”
“And then we heard a *pop* *pop* *pop* and then rustling and then, like, a really loud thud!” Joey slammed his hands against his chest to mimic the sound.
“Easy there,” Brent said, rubbing a hand gently across Joey’s shirt. “You’ll stop your heart doing that.”
“Oh, sorry. But look, Dad, look! It’s the big shade tree that fell down.”
Brent sighed, exasperated, but resigned to indulging his boy’s frightened fascination with the felled tree. Maybe if he spent a few minutes talking through the situation, he would be able to get back to his office with enough time left to get some work done before they ate.
“Alright, son,” he said. “Let me take a look.”
Brent had lived in the Midwest since he was born, and the spectacular devastation of Spring storms had long ago lost its ability to impress him. He had seen enough twisted trailers, overturned vehicles, and caved-in roofs to fill ten disaster movies, so losing a tree from their city lot was hardly a travesty worthy of such theatrics. Once the weather cleared, they would clean up the debris, maybe plant a sapling, and then they’d all forget about the incident by the time Summer steamed into the valley.
In spite of his nonchalant attitude about severe weather, however, and even though he had seen far worse wind damage, Brent recoiled violently when he peeked out the window and gazed on the mess in their front yard.
Joey was right — it had been their big tree that took the hit. The Jaspers lived in an old-growth neighborhood filled with mature trees that imparted a homey feel to the streets and sidewalks, but even among the 30-year old walnuts and maples, their towering spruce had been a local landmark. When Joey was little, he thought the tree resembled a dragon, and he would always look for the giant lizard after a long trip as a sign that they were almost home.
It could have been that association with a younger version of his son, and the realization that the boy would soon be a man and gone from their home, that had caused such a visceral reaction to the fallen tree. It could have been that Brent had a sudden vision of the tree crashing through the ceiling of their living room, smashing Joey and Tammy into the frame of the sofa while he typed away blissfully in his office.
It could have been … but it wasn’t.
Brent pushed away from the window and bolted toward the front door, nearly toppling Joey as he rushed past the boy.
“Sheesh, Brent!” Tammy exclaimed. “I thought you wanted to get back to work.” She was mocking now, but Brent didn’t care. “Besides, isn’t it ‘too dangerous’ to go outside right now.” She included the air quotes.
Brent stopped at the door and looked over his shoulder. “Seems calmer out there now. I, um, want to make sure that it didn’t hit the fire hydrant. You two stay here.”
He fumbled with the lock, then flung open the wooden door and clomped out onto the porch. From that angle, he could see the path described by the massive trunk, which had split from its stump about four feet off the ground. Brent was captivated for a moment by the jagged shards of white wood jutting skyward from the rotten core of the stricken tree. Funny, he thought, how you can never really be sure of anything in this world. Heroes disappoint you, relationships crumble, empires fall, and majestic trees rot from the inside out.
Motion near the street broke his trance, and Brent looked toward the curb. It was Dragon.
That wasn’t actually his name — or at least Brent didn’t think that was his name — but that’s what the Jaspers called him. He had moved into one of the houses down by the school more than five years ago, but they had never spoken. All they knew about him was that he drove past their house on summer mornings and evenings, presumably to and from work, and that he had a dragon tattoo on his beefy left bicep, which always hung out of his beater pickup truck.
At the moment, Dragon was walking around the upper boughs of the felled tree, which spilled into the middle of the street. He seemed to be formulating a plan.
Brent followed the tree with his eyes again, from Dragon, back across the sidewalk, over the lawn, to the decaying stump. Where was his bench?
When Joey was three, Tammy took the baby and moved to her parents’ house after a terrible fight with Brent. He begged and made promises he knew he couldn’t keep, but she refused to come home. After several months, Brent had given up on salvaging his marriage and so was shocked to find Tammy asleep in their bed, Joey curled up next to him, when he came home very late one night.
It was problematic, but he could fix things up if it meant reclaiming his family.
The next day, he came home from work with several bags of concrete, some cinder blocks, and a few masonry tools. By the end of the week, he had crafted a handsome bench that wasn’t really comfortable but was durable and permanent, just like he wanted to be. Before the concrete dried, he had Joey “sign” it with his hand print.
The Jaspers had spent many evenings there in the shade of the towering spruce.
Now, Brent’s stomach sank as he ran his eyes back up the trunk and noticed a chunk of concrete lying to the left of the wreckage, and another to the right. The tree had crashed into his bench.
“Howdy neighbor!” Dragon called from the street.
Brent gave a startled nod and turned his attention toward the intruder. “Oh, hi.”
“Why don’t you come over here, and we can drag this baby out of the street,” Dragon said. “It’s not all that heavy, and the two of us can probably get it to the curb.”
No! Brent thought. He had to get the bench cleaned up before anyone moved the tree.
Tammy and Joey had stepped out onto the porch.
Brent felt trapped, and he started to sweat.
“Um, I can’t,” he said, and grabbed his lower back. “Hurt my back at work this week.”
“Oh, you did not!” Tammy exclaimed.
Brent glared at his wife over his shoulder. Then, to Dragon, he said, “I, um, called my dad, anyway. He’s coming over to help me cut it up.”
“Grandpa’s coming over?” Joey asked?
“Well, we need to get this thing moved right away. There’s a baseball game at the school tonight, and people will be coming through here soon. Can’t disappoint the kids!” Dragon stepped to the middle of the street and wrapped his meaty hands around the peak of the tree, grunting as he stood. “Think I can manage on my own, after all.”
“No!” Brent cried, then tried to check his panic. “I mean, you’ll hurt yourself.”
Dragon already had the top of the tree halfway to the curb.
“Nah, this isn’t too bad,” he said.
It was all happening too fast, and Brent hadn’t had a chance to fix his problem.
Maybe there was still time — the tree was rushing toward him now as Dragon huffed to a conclusion, and Brent hurried around the stump end to try and cover up the bench with whatever he could find. Before he had the chance, though, he heard Tammy gasp from the porch, and he snapped his eyes to hers.
She had clasped her hands over her mouth, stifling a scream. Beside her, Joey’s eyes were wide with horror. Both of their faces were stark white.
Brent followed their gaze to the bench, busted in two on the brown April lawn.
“But,” Brent said. “I didn’t think you were coming home!”
(This story originally created in response to a flash fiction challenge on TerribleMinds.com.)